George Herbert was born in 1593, a member of an ancient family, younger brother of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, a philosopher and poet. The younger Herbert received his education at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where his classical scholarship secured him a Fellowship in 1614. He became Public Orator of the University in 1620, bringing him into contact with the Court of King James the First. Marked by his success for the career of the courtier, the death of King James and the influence of his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, led him to study divinity, and in 1626 he took holy orders. In 1630 he was ordained to the presbyterate and was persuaded by (then Bishop) William Laud to accept the rectory of Fugglestone with Bemerton, near Salisbury, where in humble devotion to duty he spent the rest of his life.
Herbert is portrayed by his biographer Izaak Walton as a model of the saintly parish priest. Unselfish in his devotion and service to others, Walton writes that many of Herbert’s parishioners “let their plow rest when Mr Herbert’s saints-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotion to God with him.” His most famous prose work, A Priest in the Temple; or The Country Parson describes a well-balanced ideal of the English parish priest. Herbert portrays the parson as a well-read divine, temperate in all things, a man of duty and prayer, and devoted to his flock, providing a model for future generations of clergy.
On his deathbed, Herbert entrusted his collection of poems entitled The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar. The poems received their publication in 1633, after Herbert’s death. Two of his poems are well known hymns: “Teach me, my God and King” and “Let all the world in every corner sing”. Herbert was a man of deep Christian conviction and remarkable poetic gifts, with a mastery of both meter and metaphor. The grace, power, and metaphysical imagery of his poetry would influence the poetry of Henry Vaughn, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as the hymns of Charles Wesley. Herbert himself described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could submit mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”
No poem better captures that meaning than this one, rich with eucharistic meaning and entitled, “Love”:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
adapted from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of George Herbert, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.